#481245 - 12/31/13 10:14 AM
Year in Review 2013
2013 is a year that the nation has seen its fair share of good and of what’s not so good, but through all the adversities Belize can truly say that it is like the phoenix, that great mythical creature that rose from out of ashes. Belize indeed is rebounding and 2013 set a perfect platform for great dividends to exponentially bear fruit. However, before those dividends could be realized, the country had to learn some important lessons.
One of those challenges was the bringing down of the national crime rate. The resolving of this social problem was ever more galvanized when, at the start of the year, four gang leaders were slaughtered in their homes. At the time, there were two going theories and one of those widely-held notions was that the killings of these men were state commissioned. Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow – even in the face of criticism – decided to take the bull by the horns and began the process of explaining how it is important to know the truth. On January 9, the Prime Minister updated the nation on the probe into the deaths of the four known affiliates of the George Street Gang. The bodies of 40-year-old Keino Quallo, 30-year-old Leonard Myers, 28-year-old Anthony Perez and 19-year-old Albert Fuentes were found at an apartment building at the corner of Plues and Dean Streets on January 8.
Following the deaths of these four, the PM held a meeting with leaders of the George Street Gang in an effort to placate high tensions that had begun to escalate in the neighborhood. Coming out of the meeting was the bad news that the George Street gang was convinced that the killings had been executed by the police, more specifically the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU). This allegation stated the Prime Minister was, “utterly unfounded” and it constituted a serious allegation against the integrity of the GSU, the Security Forces and the Government of Belize.
On the other hand, the gang was convinced that the act was not the doing of any one rival, and as such they would not retaliate against any other gang members. They also gave the assurance that there will not be retaliation against the state. PM Barrow said that he was reasonably confident that this is not going to happen. He explained that key leaders of the gang “left the city under arrangements with the security forces”. Those murders remain unsolved 11 months later.
Another significant event to happen in January is the beginning of productive negotiations of the Superbond with the Government’s debtors. This is considered perhaps one of the most important, consequential and historical developments in Belize’s post-Independence history. On January 21, Prime Minister Dean Barrow along with Co-chair of the Super Bond Creditor’s Committee, A.J Mediratta held a joint press conference at the Biltmore Plaza Hotel where it was announced that the terms of the renegotiated Superbond was almost complete.
As a result, Belize realized significant savings: in 2012, those savings in cash flow was $11 million U.S. In 2013, the savings were $33 million U.S.; between 2013 and 2017, the government will realize some $118 million U.S.; between 2013 and 2022, cash flow savings would be $247 million U.S. The terms of the new renegotiated Superbond were completed weeks later.
Also in January, Belize saw another historical step – at least that’s what it was made out to be at the time. It was announced that in October 2013, simultaneous referenda would be held in Belize and Guatemala on the almost 150-year-old territorial dispute. On January 23, The Belize Referendum Commission launched its Public Awareness Campaign on the prospect of going to the International Court of Justice.
At the time, Prime Minister Barrow made his position clearly known that had the referenda gone as planned, he would have voted “yes” but said “I will not strong-arm anyone to follow my lead.” He also announced that Cabinet has adopted a position to support a yes vote. While there were divergent opinions on the issue, the Commission launched its public education campaign with presentations from various sectors of society including the religious community, the political parties, the academia, and civil society. Those referendums were later abandoned after Guatemala asked for the referendums to be postponed due to some reservations they had with Belize’s referendum process.
In January, the quest for football superiority began as the Jaguars began their quest for success. Living up to his record as having the most goals in international play, Deon McCauley managed to score a heart-stopping 91st minute goal on Tuesday, January 23 against Nicaragua in Costa Rica in the Copa Centroamericana (Central American Cup). With Belize’s win, the squad placed second in the Group A division of the tournament. It’s a history making position for Belize as it has never won a game in the Central American Cup.
The second month of the year saw the discourse continue for the improvement of working conditions for the public service. On February 1, Prime Minister Dean Barrow met with leaders of the Public Service Union (PSU), Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), the Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM) and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) to discuss their request of a 30% salary adjustment. The Unions clamored for the salary increase based on the Prime Minister’s announcement that the Superbond had been successfully renegotiated.
While GDP grew more than Government expected, there is no direct relationship between GDP growth and the public purse. GDP is calculated by adding consumer spending plus investment plus Government spending and net export to import. In a perfect scenario, that $35 million would come from taxable enterprise from which Government revenue would only amount to a few million dollars.
The Government of Belize negotiated with the country’s bondholders because it would have been unable to make the expected payments. Even those who have never stepped foot inside a classroom can understand that it is impossible to save what one did not have in the first place. Furthermore, one cannot spend from savings which does not exist.
When the Prime Minister met with the union leaders, he and his financial officials broke down the economic figures of the country to them so they can better understand Government’s position. Prime Minister Barrow may also pledge salary adjustments based on Government surplus and economic performance. The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that “any contemplated increase in compensation to Public Sector workers should be tied in with performance improvements and efficiency increases”.
After leaders of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), Public Service Union (PSU), Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM) and National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) left the Prime Minister’s office on February 1st, they held their first meeting with membership in Belize City on Wednesday, February 6th, to get an endorsement to move forward with the proposal that Government placed on the table. Government proposed as much as 10% increase being requested annually from 2014 to 2016 depending on growth in revenue. Based on Government projections, the unions believed that revenue will increase at a rate that will allow for acceptable salary adjustments starting in July 2014. According to the unions, the “overwhelming majority” of executive members voted in favor of the proposal.
Speaking of the Superbond, the National Assembly approved the new restructured debt facility on February 12. Prime Minister Barrow introduced the “Government of Belize- External Debt Restructuring Motion, 2013”, which featured new terms to the infamous Superbond. Prime Minister Barrow explained that not only was the debt restructuring team able to negotiate a deal that include a decrease in interest rates and longer maturity period, but they were also able to get a ten- percent principal haircut, which is equal to approximately BZ$108 million. The size of the new bond is US$529,928,800 with a twenty-five-year maturity period ending in 2038. The original maturity date for the Superbond was 2029. The interest rate for the new bonds from March 20th, 2013 to August 20th, 2017 is 5% to be paid every six months. After August 17th, 2017 the interest rate will be 6.767% until the final maturity date on February 20th, 2038. The original interest rate for the Superbond was 8.5%. Belize will experience debt relief of BZ$236 million from 2013 to 2017. In net present value, the new deal will see Belize pay 56.75 cents per every Superbond dollar. That is an overall reduction of 43.25%.
The bondholders made several requests during the negotiating period. One was that Government includes a provision that would see a share of revenues from future oil discoveries passed on to bondholders. Another was for bondholders to receive a bonus if GDP grows by a significant amount. They also requested that Government pay the expenses of their creditor committee which amounted to US$8 million. In the final deal, no provision for a share of oil revenue or GDP was included and Government agreed to pay only US$1.5 million for the creditor committee’s expenses. The rest will be covered by the bondholders themselves. Additionally, $76 million which had accrued in interest during the negotiation period will be attached to the principal of the bond and will not have to be paid up front by Government.
On February 17, The United Democratic Party held its National Convention in Corozal Town. The convention is the party’s largest and most important decision making body and was once again called upon to make important decisions for the way forward for the UDP. The highlight of the day was the elections for the post of First Deputy in which Hon. Gaspar Vega and Hon. Patrick Faber contested. Also, the party’s chairman was chosen and the candidates in that race were Alberto August and former Senator Roosevelt Blades. Also up for election were the position of Deputy Party Chairman, which saw Belize City Councilor Roger Espejo and Punta Gorda town Councilor Fern Gutierrez seeking that post.
A total of 567 votes eligible for casting which came from the members of the Central Executive Committee, Cabinet Members, UDP Members of the National Assembly, Constituency Caretakers, the party Chairman, Vice Chairman, Secretary of constituency committees and twelve constituency delegates, all party members who hold elected office at the municipal level, honorary members of the UDP, two delegates from the National Organization of Women and two delegates from the UDP Youth Arm.
Some 8,000 party supporters gathered as the party’s national convention delegates came together to make important decisions for the forward movement of the UDP. At the end of the voting the Deputy Party Leader’s position was taken by Hon. Gaspar Vega, who received 311 votes while Hon. Patrick Faber received 233. Taking the Chairman’s position was Alberto August, who secured 379 votes while Roosevelt Blades got 183 votes. Holding the position of Deputy Party Chairman is now Fern Gutierrez, who received 378 votes while Roger Espejo, who also contested the position, received 180 votes.
Also in February, the Ministry of Natural Resource and Agriculture announced an important initiative: its all-important land tax amnesty program. It began on February 4th. Under the program, people who have not been paying their land taxes will be forgiven interest and fees along with a 25 percent discount on moneys owed to the Lands Department.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry, Beverly Castillo, explained that the program is designed to encourage persons to come in and update their information with the Lands Department. In doing so those who took advantage of the amnesty received major discounts on amounts they owe.
The Government of Belize also launched a very important project for the country. The Ministry of Economic Development partnered with the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) to launch a BZD$12.8 million project on April 11, which will finance a number of poverty alleviation projects throughout Belize. The project will be implemented by the Social Investment Fund (SIF). The funds for the project are the allocation for Belize under the Bank’s Basic Needs Trust Fund (BNTF) which is now into its seventh cycle. The BZD$12.8 million) represents an increase of approximately 74.8% in CDB funding over the programme. It also includes $11.1 million is in the form of grant funds and BZD$1.7 million represents Government of Belize counterpart financing. The increase in funding means more money for projects in the three key areas of focus, which include Education/Human Resource Development, Water and Sanitation, and Access/Drainage. The funds will be targeted toward poor areas of the country, with the poorest areas receiving the most attention.
April also saw the launch of the National Solid Waste Project, which began in the west. The Solid Waste Management Authority within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Agriculture held a public consultation on April 10. Garbage collection is a particular challenge for the Twin Towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena. The Municipality spends some three hundred to four hundred thousand dollars per year picking up garbage. The Town of San Ignacio produces some forty two tons of waste daily while Belize City produces some seventy eight tons per day.
But some respite is on the way for the Twin Towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena Town and the other inhabitants of the Western Corridor, which consists of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize City, Belmopan and Benque Viejo. As part of the Solid Waste Management Project, a sanitary landfill at mile twenty four on the George Price Highway is now under construction. This landfill is now about eighty five percent complete and will serve as a final destination of garbage from transfer stations along the Western Corridor. The project itself comes thanks to a loan of U.S $14.789 Million from both the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) and the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID). Under the Solid Waste Management Project, the intention is to close down the Belize City dumpsite and instead build a transfer station there. The same will be done with the dump sites along the Western Corridor. Some sixty percent of the dump site near San Ignacio Town has been closed and construction of the transfer station has begun.
Infrastructure also played a big part in how the year shaped and one of the major announcements on this front was when Chetumal Boulevard opened on April 16th. According the Mayor Darrell Bradley, it took over three months and 708 thousand dollars for the contractor RJB Construction to complete the plans which were designed by M & M Engineering. Most of the finances, he noted, went to the construction of drains alongside the boulevard. The road also consists of other features which include proper lining with therma-plastic lining and a beautified median which will be adopted by Westrac. According to the Mayor, the plan is to extend the paving to meet the river and await the construction of the 4th bridge which will link the north side of Belize City to the south side on Chetumal Boulevard.
Also in April, Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow declared an end to the ban on Voice over Internet Protocol services (VoIP). VoIP is a program that takes analog audio signals, like the kind you hear when you talk on the phone, and turn them into digital data that can be transmitted over the Internet. The program allows the user to bypass the phone company and its fees when making calls. There are three ways in which VoIP is used. One is with an analog telephone adaptor (ATA). The ATA allows you to connect a standard phone to your computer or your Internet connection for use with VoIP. The ATA is an analog-to-digital converter. It takes the analog signal from your traditional phone and converts it into digital data for transmission over the Internet. The second way is by using a specialized phone called an IP Phone. The IP Phone is similar to regular phones but it comes with an Ethernet connector instead of a phone connector. It can be connected to any router to be used to make calls. The third and easiest way to use VoIP is from computer to computer. The most common form is video chatting. There are several sites that allow video chatting for free or at very cheap monthly rates.
May saw us continue one of the most important discussions of our time. The case of Caleb Orozco and interested parties versus the Attorney General and interested parties began on May 6th in the chambers of Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin. Orozco is taking the Attorney General to court challenging the constitutionality of Section 53 of the Criminal Code, which reads “every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for ten years.” Orozco, an openly gay man, says that the law violates his right to privacy, dignity and equality. He has retained the services of Senior Counsel Christopher Hamel Smith, Senior Counsel Simeon Sampson, Lisa Shoman and Westmin James, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, at UWI’s Cave Hill campus. But Orozco is not alone in his bid; he is joined by the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Human Dignity Trust and the International Commission of Jurists, who also have representation by Queen’s Counsel Lord Peter Goldsmith and Godfrey Smith.
Defending the law are attorneys in the Attorney General’s Ministry, Nigel Hawke, Herbert Panton, Ileana Swift and Magali Perdomo. Also seeking to have the law remain in place are the churches, who have also been added to the case as interested parties. They too have legal representation with Senior Counsel Rodwell Williams, Eamon Courtenay, Michel Chebat, Jacqueline Marshalleck and Christopher Coye representing them.
The first two days were afforded to lead attorneys Christopher Hamel Smith and Lord Peter Goldsmith. Both argued that Orozco’s constitutional rights were violated by section 53 of the Criminal Code. Both had much to say; each putting forth their positions both speaking in excess of four hours each.
In his arguments, Smith put forth that Section 53 violates the constitutional rights of his client, Caleb Orozco. He pointed out that while it is facially neutral with no reference to gender being made, in practice, every time his client, who is a homosexual man and who is predisposed to engage in sexual act with another man does the act, he is in effect committing a crime albeit that he is not caught. He in fact is an un-detained felon because he has committed a criminal act, even if it is the privacy of his home. This, he said, has caused his client great trauma and has gone against many of his constitutional rights including his right to privacy and freedom of expression. He concluded by asking the court to strike down Section 53 to the extent that it infringes on his clients rights and no more.
For his part, Goldsmith went one step further and suggested that we need to look at international norms when interpreting section 53. He cited authorities from various jurisdictions including India, South Africa and the United States among other jurisdictions to show that these countries have all used the generally accepted international principles in interpreting their domestic legislation so as to give as wide a scope in interpreting their domestic legislation. Most pertinent was his argument where a Texas State law which prohibits homosexuality was stuck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Before conclusion of hearings, attorney for the AG’s Ministry rose and made preliminary objections to Smith’s submission and including his references three constitutional provisions 11, 12 and 16, which did not form part of his original pleadings in his claim before the Supreme Court. The CJ asked that that matter be addressed later on after which Hawke made his defense and thereafter the attorney for the churches had their input. A ruling has not been issued.
May also saw some significant political victories for The United Democratic Party following the first round of village council elections held on Sunday, May 12. In those elections, the party secured an overwhelming majority of village councils. 44 villages in total held elections and the UDP secured victories in 31 of these villages. In the Belize Rural North Constituency, Hon. Edmund Castro delivered all 8 villages on the Old Northern Highway including Maskall, Bomba, Boston, Corozalito, Lucky Strike, Rockstone Pond, Santana and St. Ann’s. In Orange Walk, Deputy Party Leader, Hon. Gaspar Vega delivered Trial Farm Village while Orange Walk South caretaker, Juan de Dios Moguel secured victories in San Lazaro and Trinidad. Orange Walk East caretaker, Landy Burns, delivered Chan Pine Ridge for the UDP from a formerly PUP held council.
In the Corozal District, Hon. Hugo Patt secured victories in Yo Chen, Cristo Rey and San Pedro. Meanwhile, caretaker Raul Rosado brought in Carolina and 4 councilors in Calcutta getting a majority hold in that village. There were unsuccessful bids in Ranchito and San Joaquin.
Out west, it was pretty much the same scenario with Hon. Rene Montero taking Esperanza village and Cristo Rey. Caretaker Miley Garcia secured Blackman Eddy Village and with great work from UDP Chairman Mike Juan, for a third consecutive time, he maintained his position in Unitedville Village. The bid was unsuccessful in Valley of Peace.
In the Stann Creek District, the UDP secured a full-slate victory in Red Bank. In San Roman the party garnered 4 councilors and the Chairman seats while in Maya Mopan and Independence it secured a majority of 4 councilor seats. In the Toledo District, the UDP secured full-slate victories in Big Falls, Elridgeville, Forest Home, Santa Ana. In Aguacate, the UDP got 3 councilors and the Chairman. In Mabil Ha the UDP got 4 councilors and the Chairman. Santa Teresa and Jordan saw the UDP getting 2 councilor candidates each. The UDP was unsuccessful in San Benito Poite, Mafredi, Blue Creek, Cattle Landing and Boom Creek. At the end of the process, the UDP won 822 out of 1,198 or 69% of the seats up for grabs.
On May 14th, 22-year-old Felicia Chen, the young mother, who is accused of killing three of her four children on April 27th, Belizean was back before the Belize City Magistrate’s Court for a third appearance in her triple homicide case. Following her being ferried to at least three courtrooms, it was revealed that she needed to spend 8 more days in a psychiatric facility.
DPP Cheryl Lynn Vidal told us that at this time she cannot release any other information on Chen since the matter is still before the court. Chen is being represented by attorney, Antoinette Moore, a well known human rights activist. When asked to comment, Moore also refrained only confirming that she is Chen’s attorney at this time. Her case is yet to reach a conclusion.
May also recorded tragedy in Belize City. More than a dozen babies died at the KHMH after an outbreak of a bacterium that affected the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit. According to a release from the hospital, the 12 babies were delivered at the KHMH and referred to the NICU. One of the children died within two days of birth while the 11 others within 7-27 days of birth.
Since the report, the KHMH launched an investigation into the deaths on Monday, May 20th, by a team comprised of the Ministry of Health, Quality Assurance and the Medical Directorate of the hospital. Chief of Medical Staff, Dr. Adrian Coye , explained that the investigation has so far determined that 7 of the 12 deaths have been positively identified as having been caused by an organism called Enterobacter Cloacae. This is a bacterium which causes infections in the lower respiratory tract, skin and soft tissues. The other deaths, said Coye were as a result of the babies having been born prematurely. According to Coye, when the deaths began to occur, the hospital put in place procedural changes and treatment for the children; however, this was not enough to save the lives. The bacterium, according to Coye, is not a superbug and is sensitive to antibiotics, which are available at the hospital. He added that it is unclear how the bug made its way to the NICU but it is transmissible through both direct and indirect contact and it is readily transmissible. He also noted that it is a fastidious bug. Coye added that the bacterium is not unique to Belize and is present in intensive care units all over the world and the Pan American Health Organization in Washington sent assistance to deal with the outbreak. Since the incidence, the NICU unit was closed until the necessary upgrades were completed later in the year.
The Belize City Council also announced that the second tranche for the Belize City Municipal Development Bond has been launched. The second tranche is for 5 million dollars and will see the continuation of street paving and other infrastructural work in Belize City.
The bond was structured in three tranches. The first had three portions for 2 million dollars at an interest rate of 3.5% for two years. Another portion was for $3 million dollars bearing interest at 5.5% and a maturity of 5 years, and a third portion for $5 million with an interest rate of 8% for 10 years. The second tranche also has three portions. The first is for 1 million dollars at an interest rate of 3.5% per annum for two years. The second is for 2 million dollars at an interest rate of 5.5% per annum for 5 years, and the third is for 2 million dollars at an interest rate of 8% for 10 years.
The third tranche has two portions, the first being for 2 million dollars and carrying interest rate of 5.5% for 5 years, and the second portion is for 3 million dollars and carries an interest rate of 8% for 10 years.
By May, the City Council had completed the investment of the first 10 million dollars and was moving to invest the second tranche of 5 million dollars. According to the City Council prospectus, interest on the bonds will be calculated on a semi-annual basis and will be payable on June 1 and November 1 each year starting this year.
Some of the major headlines for the month of June centered on environmental issues. Oceana and the Government of Belize were back in court on June 5th, as GOB tried to have a stay of execution on an injunction which was granted to Oceana on May 16. The injunction was given by Justice Oswell Legall along with a declaration that contracts signed in 2004 and 2007 were unlawful and void. He also ruled that before entering into agreements or contracts which authorize oil exploration and seismic surveys that environmental impact assessments are required. An injunction was then granted restraining the Minister of Natural Resources from executing the PSA’s. The only companies which will be affected by the ruling are Princess Petroleum Limited and Providence Energy Belize Limited, which have contracts that extend to October 2015.
Senior Counsel Denys Barrow, who represented the Government, explained that at the beginning of the case, Oceana had applied to have evidence of an expert on petroleum admitted into the court proceedings. The Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin ruled against that, however, since there was no need for any expert’s opinion at this juncture since the substantive case had already been heard and a ruling done on it. At the end of that first phase, Oceana was ordered to pay costs of the legal proceedings to the Government.
After that was dispensed with, Barrow presented Government’s arguments. He explained to The Guardian that it was Government’s view that Justice Legall had given Oceana an injunction that “he did not think out since he did not have the benefit of listening to submissions from either myself or Mr. Godfrey Smith (Oceana’s attorney)”. He added that Justice Legall had given Oceana two declarations out of 9, which they had sought and, for good measure, he, “threw in an injunction that Oceana did not ask for.” As for the arguments presented, he said that what was presented was that the Chief Justice has jurisdiction to order a stay on the injunction and that Government has a good case when an appeal is heard. He added that the second basis upon which the stay of execution should be ordered is where irreparable damage and injury could be caused by not allowing the oil companies to continue to drill for oil. He said that, in effect, if the injunction remains oil exploration, discovery and production are delayed and the prospect of the Government and people of Belize’s prospects of getting income and revenue from these oil explorations is also delayed. If the potential of oil finds are delayed for a year that, which could have been spent now or in a year’s time, will be delayed for a further two years. Development, he said, like the construction of a new wing at the KHMH for example would be delayed; scholarships for children, infrastructure and other areas of development would be stunted.
Cabinet also announced that it would make amendments to the Revised National Gender Policy 2013 in response to concerns raised by church leaders. One of the guiding principles of the document reads: “Men and Women in Belize are not a homogenous group. Rather, the population is comprised of persons of all ages who come from diverse races, cultures, ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, socio-economic situations and behavioral lifestyles. All policies and programmes must therefore reflect this reality of diversity among the Belizean populace and customary, religious and cultural practices must be subject to the right of equality.”
Cabinet decided to order the removal of the last part of the statement which says, “…and programmes must therefore reflect this reality of diversity among the Belizean populace and customary, religious and cultural practices must be subject to the right of equality.” When asked about the decision to omit that part of the statement, Prime Minister Barrow said, “Those few last words could have well been interpreted as Government trying to oblige the religious community to in fact act in a certain way.” He says that is not Government’s intention.
While PM Barrow understood how that part of the statement could have been interpreted as Government trying to dictate the actions of the religious community, he found it incredible that “people see the policy as the thinning of the wedge - when they get from there to the suggestion that this open the door to some kind of legislation that would sanction same sex marriages.” He totally dismissed that notion. He explained, “the policy is principally about equality between the sexes, trying to ensure that the traditional restrictions that have attached to the role of a woman will be no more; trying to ensure that there will be no discrimination, and trying to empower women.”
Prime Minister Barrow went on to reiterate Government’s position of respect for diversity. He said, “This is government’s policy and this is what ought to inform Government’s actions and we certainly are prepared to maintain very strongly that paragraph, absent those words, which then, results mainly in the statement that Government policy is going to be informed and should be informed by a respect for diversity of all types, including diversity of sexual orientation.”
It would appear that the misdeeds of the past PUP administration will continue to haunt the Belizean people for an undetermined amount of time. This became evident as Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow once again exposed the past PUP leader and Prime Minister Said Musa and the current PUP Leader Francis Fonseca for having signed yet another secret agreement with Ashcroft-related interests. That wasn’t more galvanized when PM Barrow called a press conference on June 12 following the Government of Belize’s taking over the International Business Companies Registry and the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE) on June 10. The Companies Registry, through various agents sets up offshore companies in Belize. IMMARBE for its part registers foreign sea vessels in Belize so they are able to fly the Belizean flag.
The Government moved to take control of the companies on Monday, June 10th after the expiration of an existing contract, which allowed the two companies to be under control of Belize International Services Limited (BISL), an Ashcroft-related company. The Government wrote to BISL informing them of this, only to be told that there was a contract between the Government and them that extended into 2020. Prime Minister Barrow stated during the press conference that, despite best efforts to locate the contract, it was unsuccessful and only came upon a copy after it was furnished by BISL.
The Prime Minister explained that the relationship between the Government of Belize and BISL, which is a joint venture between a group of attorneys from Panama: Morgan and Morgan and originally Belize Holdings Inc., later on BCB holdings began in 1990. At the time, the Government had signed on to an agreement for Belize Holdings to manage both IMMARBE and the International Business Companies Registry for a period of 10 years. Three years later, on the eve of general elections in 1993, that contract was extended for a period of 10 years. By June 9th, 2003 the legal advisor in the Ministry of Finance, Gian Ghandi had written to BISL that because of fundamental changes in circumstances since the agreement was signed in 1993, they could no longer renew their contract to manage the companies for 10 years. Despite the legal opinion to the contrary, the then Prime Minister, Said Musa gave BISL the option to renew for 10 more years taking them to 2013.
But in 2005, a secret agreement was signed with BISL, Said Musa as Prime Minister and Francis Fonseca as Attorney General, which validated the option to extend the agreement into 2013 and further added 7 more years to the contract taking it up to 2020 for a consideration of $1.5 million U.S. P.M. Barrow said that the money was received but the contract was nowhere to be found. That then made it a Secret Agreement and would have never made it out in the public had the Government not chosen to take over IMMARBE and the Offshore Companies Registry. The P.M. added that he has made checks with persons, who were in Cabinet at the time of the signing of the agreement and all agree that it was never brought to Cabinet.
Government’s position now is that the Secret Agreement is invalid as it goes contrary to the Financial and Audit Act, the Financial Orders, the Stores Orders and the Expenditure Act. And it must be, since the agreement is almost of a carbon copy of the type of agreements which Ashcroft was accustomed to getting under the PUP. According to the Prime Minister, the 1993 Master Agreement exempts BISL from paying taxes which up to the present date has accrued around $30 million. It further has it that IMMARBE would not be subject to any measure of performance and it could not be held liable for any failure to provide all or any of the services of the agreement. Then those representing the company would be given consular status in the parts of the world where they operated and exclusivity was also guaranteed to them. Then, there was the issue of inspection of records which was subject to constraints.
The extraordinary concessions given to the companies aside, there have always been problems with the distribution of income from the registering of boats and companies. According to the Prime Minister, BISL received 64 percent of every dollar in revenue while the Government received a token 36%. It definitely seemed out of proportion but now that is coming to an end with Government assuming full control of both companies. With Government in control, Marion Palacio has been named as the Interim Registrar and the transition has gone without incident.
The results of the Primary School Examinations (P.S.E.) were released on June 7th, and Siyun Ye from the Bernice Yorke Institute of Learning is the top performer in the class of 2013. More students sat this year’s P.S.E. than ever before with 7,359 candidates taking the exam on Monday, March 18th and May 6. Siyun Ye recorded a score of 391 out of a possible 400 points. Ye said the exam was easy but she did not expect to be the top performer. Her only challenge was to finish the essay section of the English paper in the time allotted. Students tied for the second best performance are Vincent Hulse and Nelson Esteban of St. Andrew’s Anglican School in the Cayo District and Jennessa Sierra of San Pedro R.C. School. The three of them received 386 points. Agatha Petkau of United Evergreen School in Cayo; Iani Adolphus of Hummingbird Elementary in Belize City; Sherry Tan and Alana Rosado of Belize Elementary School received 385 total points. The Ministry of Education said, “The performances on English and mathematics are cause for concern and call for concerted action on the part of all stakeholders in education to address these areas.”
The Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH) presented the Pan American Health Organization’s investigation into the death of 8 neonatal babies between May 5th and 17th. Chief Executive Officer at the hospital, Dr. Gary Longsworth, highlighted the findings of the report. The hospital has in place various infection prevention control measures and guidelines but much needs to be done to strengthen these measures. The report seconds that sentiment highlighting various deficiencies that exist in the KHMH. Among these is the Infection Control Committee and program, which were not working on a regular basis. Although there are trained personnel, the methods of surveillance have not been specific and are not targeted to any types of illnesses. The investigative team also found that the Central Medical Laboratory has deficiencies regarding space and training for those working there. There also needs to be quality control measures to be implemented urgently to improve the functions of the microbiology laboratory. It also found that there should be standard precautions put in place to control and prevent outbreaks. While there were prevention guidelines, monitoring and lack of a supportive environment for standard precautions were affecting compliance. To each of the deficient areas, PAHO made specific recommendations for improvement. These include the development of infection prevention and control plan with annual goal to monitor activities. It also called for better communication strategies between the hospital and the laboratory. Some of these, said Dr. Longsworth, are already in place with the Infection Control Committee having already drafted an infection prevention plan in line with the recommendations made. It also has the Central Medical Laboratory involved in this exercise. There has also been the development of a draft antibiotic policy to manage invasive procedures in the hospital intensive care since this involves a lot of invasive work which could lead to infection. Another recommendation asks that there be better reporting throughout the system vertically to the Chief Executive Officer, and Dr. Longsworth indicated that is already being done with him now being a part of the Infection Control Committee. As for the neonatal area, Government has already disbursed one hundred and fifty thousand dollars which will be used within the next two weeks to improve the neonatal facility of the hospital. This will include the remodeling and expanding of the unit to double its space.
(Read Part II in the next issue)
The third month of the year saw the beginning of something very important: the overhaul of the passport, nationality and immigration system in Belize. Beginning on March 1st, the Immigration Department added requirements for persons to apply for passports. Among the new requirements is the addition of a second recommender for the persons making passport applications. Persons who are making applications from foreign missions will also be asked to fill out an additional form. For those persons who have lost or have their passports damaged, a form is also being introduced that needs to be filled out as well. In the past, the application process only required an applicant to have one recommender, who would have been a Justice of the Peace, Minister of Religion, Medical Practitioner, Notary Public or an Attorney at Law. Now, there is a second recommender, who should be a Member of the House of Representatives, a Chief Executive Officer in any Ministry of Government, a Head of Department or a Licensed Teacher. In addition to filling out the form, those making recommendations will be asked to certify by way of a picture that the person is who he or she says they are. Other changes in the application process include the addition of expedited services where passports can be delivered in 24 hours for a fee of $200, 48 hours for a fee of $100 and 3 to 5 day service for a fee of $50. All other fees for passports remain the same as before.
Also in March, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Hon. Dean Barrow, presented the 2013-14 budget to the House of Representatives. The highlights of the presentation underscored the growth of the Belizean economy. Considered an economic marvel, Belize’s economy grew by 5.6%.
Public sector spending was expected to play a significant role in Belize’s economic activity for the next twelve months. Prime Minister Barrow announced Government will spend $60 million on a package of infrastructural projects that will be implemented by a national construction company named Belize Infrastructure Limited. PM Barrow said this is the special-purpose vehicle that will create jobs, stimulate demand, purchase private sector material and supplies and “generally raise that tide that will float all Belizean boats.” There will be continued investment in the country’s primary and secondary road network as well as the infrastructure of the major towns and cities.
The Government also expanded support to the indigent and the working poor through the Food Pantry Program, giving this basic nutritional and survival assistance to more citizens, including now in some rural areas.” The Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, also known as Building Opportunities for Our Social Transformation initiative (BOOST) will also continued to be implemented in more communities. The Food Pantry Program allows low income families to purchase basic food items at less than half the price. BOOST sees the government enter into contracts with parents where cash is given to them in exchange for participation in developmental activities such as school attendance, vaccination, etc. In 2008, the total investment in social assistance programs was a half of a million dollars. It is now way over $5 million.
March also saw significant developments in the sugar industry. The Belize Sugar Industry Limited held an annual general meeting on March 5th during which the company declared dividends for the year 2012. During the meeting, it was announced that a 3 million dollar dividend payment will be made to entities who had shareholding in the company previous to the October 2nd, 2012 equity transaction to ASR, which took over majority shareholding in the company by virtue of over U.S. 100 million dollar investment in the company. In that transaction, ASR bought out BSI’s liabilities at international and local banks as well as the Government of Belize. It also paid out outstanding dividends to the BSI’s Employee Holdings, and committed to have at least 30 million U.S. dollars invested in the company.
With the declaration of dividends, which is approximately $0.068 per each of the 44 million issued shares before ASR’s investment, the BSI’s Employee Holdings will receive approximately 81.29% of the 3 million dollars or $2,438,627. The money was disbursed to the Employee’s Trust, who then disbursed to its membership on March 21st.
The Pallotine Sisters of Belize also marked their centennial anniversary of their work in education and national development to this country. In addition to commemorative stamps marking the milestone – a collection commissioned by the Philatelic Bureau of the Belize Postal Service – there were other events surrounding this important development.
It was in 1913, that a group of sisters from Germany began their process of adapting to a new culture and climate and in the ensuing century, their followers went on to contribute greatly to Social Welfare and Education. In the 1920’s, the Pallotine Mission built a convent in San Ignacio, where the sisters were stationed and from there labored selflessly. A similar pattern of mission was established in Benque Viejo, where the Pallotine Convent still stands.
The Police Department also used the month of March to add to its contingent of servicemen and women. 130 joined the ranks of the department to contribute to the fight against crime.
Baton of Honor went to RPC 1528 Andy Rodriguez; In the Written Exam, First Place went to RPC 1450 Rodrigo Castillo, and Second Place to RPC 1528 Andy Rodriguez; the award for Most Consistent Recruit went also to RPC 1528 Andy Rodriguez; the Best Physical Condition Award was taken by RPC 1480 Daniel Jimenez; the 1st Shooting Qualification Award went to RPC 1467 David Gongora; the Commandant’s Prize was received by WRPC 1544 Lourdes Torres; and the 1st in First Aid Award went to RPC 1579 Zair Pott.
During the ceremony, awards of recognition were also given out to a number of retired Police Officers. They are: Mr. Paul Wade, former Assistant Commissioner; Justo Augustine, former Superintendent; Claudio Mai, former Acting Assistant Superintendent; James Morriera, former Acting Assistant Superintendent; Moses Aranda, former Inspector; Hubert Augustine, former Sergeant; Michael Ciego, former Corporal; and Michael Muslar, former Police Constable. The 130 new recruits were placed on active duty starting March 25, 2013, over 100 of them being deployed in Belize City, which is the area with the greatest need for an increase in the number of Police Officers. In addition to these 130 young men and women, the force also saw a reorganization exercise. The country was zoned off into 4 major areas. Those are: the Northern, Eastern, Western and the Southern Regions, each having a senior officer in command and responsible. The Northern region is being commanded by Sr. Superintendent Joseph Myvette; Assistant Commissioner of Police Miguel Segura is in charge of the Eastern Region; Superintendent Aaron Guzman has the Western Region and Sr. Superintendent Robert Mariano is in charge of the Southern Region. Within each of the regions, there are sub-divisions also with senior officers in charge to decentralize authority and hold particular individuals responsible.
The region of greatest concern is the Eastern Region where Belize City lies. In Belize City, the concept of precincts was introduced; four were formed. Precinct one is located at the corner of Kut and Euphrates Avenues and is commanded by Superintendent Alden Dawson. Precinct two is located at the lower flat of Raccoon Street Police Station and is commanded by Superintendent Alford Grinage. Precinct 3 is located at the Queen Street Police Station and the commander is Superintendent Gualberto Garcia. The fourth precinct is located at the Belama Police Station and is commanded by Assistant Superintendent David Chi. According to Commissioner of Police Whylie, the move was to decentralize authority and hold particular officers responsible for particular areas.
Belize Telemedia Limited also rolled out its Digicell 4G service to other parts of the country in March 2013. With Digicell’s 4G cell sites having been activated between Belmopan to the Benque Viejo Border in February, a similar pattern of activity is now taking place between Belmopan and Punta Gorda. Five more cell sites are being readied for full operation between these two areas and when this takes place by mid-April of this year, it will mark a full Digicell 4G Coverage for Belize. Digicell 4G is a new service being offered by Belize Telemedia Limited and have thus far proved to be convenient for customers who are on the constant move. The improved broadband speeds that 4G brings, use HSPA plus Technology (a technical standard for wireless), which operates on the 850 MHz Frequency. It allows the uploading of pictures and applications in an environment of greater bandwidth. The 4G network also allows for downloads of multi-media at faster speeds. Information can now be swapped at breathtaking speeds by Belize Telemedia customers in the North, Central and Western portions of Belize. Those who look forward to the opportunity of Wireless communications now also have a wide choice of mobile devices that can now satisfy Digicell 4G’s data specifications.
Sports also played an important role in instilling national pride in Belize as Darnell Barrow captured the Cross Country Cycle Classic. The 85th annual bike race took place on March 30.
The 139.6-mile event attracted 87 riders which included 6 from the USA, 10 Mexicans and 2 Guatemalans. At the end of the race, some 44 riders did not finish the course, while 41 riders crossed the finish line. The record of 5:40:12 which was set by Ryan Baumann in 2009 was not broken, but this year’s race was the fastest ever rode by any cyclists that have participated in the Annual Holy Saturday Cross Country Cycling Classic.
In the last leg, some 15 riders, which included Darnell Barrow of Team Santino’s, were heading for the finish line on the Princess Margaret Drive. In a dramatic sprint to the finish line, Belizean Darnell Barrow was able to outsprint two foreigners to capture the 85th Annual Holy Saturday Cross Country Cycling Classic in a time of 5:46:49. The second rider to cross the finish line was Mexican rider Juan Pablo Magallanes of Team Benny’s Megabytes and he was followed by American John Delong of Veloshine Cycling Team. Delong was followed by Justin Williams of BZN Linkup Cycling Team and Belizean, Gregory Lovell of Telemedia Cycling Team rounding out the top five.
Although it was Easter weekend, testing was conducted on an oil well dug in Gallon Jug to determine if it has potential to produce oil commercially.
The Ministry of Energy, Science & Technology and the PUC issued a release which states that on March 30th, Maranco Energy Belize Limited “discovered an encouraging oil show at the South Canal Bank #1 exploration well in their concession area in the Orange Walk District.” The Well is located in the Gallon Jug area in property belonging to a company called Laguna Seca.
According to the release issued in early April, more testing needed to be done to determine whether or not the well has commercial potential. Personnel from the Geology and Petroleum Department began to monitor the situation.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Energy, Dr. Colin Young, says the company has up to 18 months to do their appraisal on the well to determine its commercial viability. Maranco received its Production Sharing Agreement on May 3, 2011 on a 378,000-acre swath of private land in the Gallon Jug area of the Orange Walk District. Drilling at the South Canal Bank started on March 8.
On April 10, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) announced that water rates will be left unchanged for the period April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014. On December 31, 2012 the Belize Water Services Limited (BWSL) submitted a proposal to the PUC that there be no Annual Tariff Review Proceeding (ARP). The PUC concluded that there was no exceptional circumstances to warrant that an ARP be initiated on the PUC’s own volition and accepted BWS’ proposal. Therefore, the current tariffs, fees and charges remained in effect. However, the Public Utilities Commission will hold an ARP for the Belize Electricity Limited (BEL). On April 2, 2013 BEL submitted an application to the PUC requesting a reduction in the Mean Electricity Rate (MER) of approximately 1 cent per kilowatt hour. That would mean that residential customers would pay around 48 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity. BEL stated that the reduction is necessary in order to reflect the actual Cost of Power since January 2013 compared to the projected cost submitted to PUC in December of 2012”.The Guardian
#481356 - 01/01/14 10:12 AM
Re: Year in Review 2013
YEAR IN REVIEW – 2013 HEADLINE HIGHLIGHTS
TOP 10 stories for 2013
1. The Penner Passport Scandal
2. KHMH cloacae calamity: 12 babies die under mysterious circumstances
3. Cañeros lock horns with BSI over bagasse payment: Cane season unable to start
4. Belize debt restructuring – new superbond sealed
5. Belize faces mounting LGBT challenges; 2013 Gender Policy sparks massive protests
6. Aborted Referendum on Belize-Guatemala issue
7. Murder rate drops
8. Felicia Chen faces charges for the murder of her three children
9. Four George Street gang leaders brutally executed
10. Noh Mul destruction
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Dec. 30, 2013
POLITICS AND NATIONAL SECURITY: Passports
Thousands of news stories crossed our desk in the year 2013, but by all indications, the most explosive story, with the greatest national and indeed internationally-significant implications, was “the Penner Passport Scandal.” News of the scandal broke in September 2013, when the Government announced that Prime Minister Dean Barrow had sacked Minister of State in the Immigration Ministry Elvin Penner, also the United Democratic Party’s area representative for Cayo Northeast, following allegations that he had been involved in facilitating a passport for an Asian who was behind bars in Taiwan. Barrow went further to call for Penner’s resignation from the ruling party, and the Opposition People’s United Party has been mobilizing a recall vote, which threatens to erode the UDP’s thin 17-14 majority rule in Parliament. (A more detailed summary is given in the sidebar to this review.)
HEALTH: Death of babies at KHMH
Within the first 22 days of May, 13 babies died at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH). The initially reported number of deaths was 12, but one more baby died on May 22, increasing the toll to 13. We were told that that baby was admitted into the hospital already ill and was tested negative for a bacteria known as Enterobacter cloacae – treatable but, according to KHMH officials, hard to detect early on.
Harrison Sutherland, 18, lost his daughter, Imari, due to the bacteria. She lived just 8 days. He blames the hospital for the multiple deaths.
“I blame the ICU because they should have known that the ICU had an infection so they could have moved the babies from there a long time; they waited until all the babies died,” Sutherland said.
Although the first strange case of baby infection was reported back in February, the ward had been closed and cleaned before any more babies were admitted. However, an outbreak-related death ensued on May 10.
As Amandala had reported in June, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) had conducted an on-site study at the hospital and produced a report on its findings.
It found deficiencies in several areas of the hospital system, including the infection control program being used, the physical layout of the hospital, supportive areas (sterilization, antiseptics and disinfectants, microbiology laboratory) and the current practices for infection prevention and control.
While that investigation pinpointed no source for the outbreak of the bacteria – Enterobacter cloacae – PAHO has chronicled several faults in the systems of the hospital and offered several recommendations on how those areas could be improved.
ECONOMY: Sugar Industry
As the year 2013 draws to a close, the sugar industry remains at a standstill, as cañeros continue to lock horns with the Belize Sugar Industries (a subsidiary of American Sugar Refining) over payments the farmers are demanding for bagasse, a sugarcane byproduct which is used to produce electricity that is sold as a partial energy supply for the national grid. Farmers are standing their ground, refusing to commence sugar cane delivery until and unless a satisfactory agreement is reached. Meanwhile, though, sugar roads – like many other roads in the country – continue to be in a deplorable state due to bouts of heavy rain which have been hammering away at the country’s road network for the past few months.
The impasse between cane farmers and BSI has continued despite attempts by the Government to broker a settlement between the parties.
The continued delay in the start of this year’s crop could result in major losses for the industry.
FINANCE: New super-bond sealed
In March 2013, the Barrow administration announced that it had completed the restructuring of the super-bond, with new terms which Prime Minister Dean Barrow said would translate into a BZ$494 million reduction in debt servicing expenditure over the next 10 years.
The offer resulted in 86.17 percent of bondholders tendering their bonds due in 2029, in exchange for new bonds due in 2038.
“If we had not succeeded, we would have had to add that $76.4 million to the $84 million and, of course, that would have meant that we would no doubt have gone over the fiscal cliff,” Barrow had said.
The trade unions joined the private sector in supporting the Barrow administration’s move to restructure the billion-dollar super-bond, in an effort to reduce payments from the public purse, but they had also made a list of 11 contingent demands on the Government of Belize, including a demand for the government to stop the wanton distribution of the nation’s patrimony in corrupt, under-the table deals; and a demand for government to quit hiring unqualified persons and padding the public service with contract workers.
Government had reported that the maximum transaction size of the super-bond is US$529,928,800.
The restructured super-bond has a 25-year maturity period which will end in 2038, nine years longer than the current bond, which was to expire in 2029. The Government also gets a 10 percent haircut off the principal, removing $108 million off the former super-bond principal.
The year 2013 saw UNIBAM have its day in court, as it moved a constitutional challenge against the Government of Belize, challenging Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code which outlaws unnatural sex acts such as sodomy. Meanwhile, Belize is this year facing a legal challenge by Jamaican LGBT activist Maurice Tomlinson, who alleges that the country’s Immigration Act restricts visits from homosexuals in violation, he says, of his right to free movement as a CARICOM national.
Meanwhile, both the UK and the US have called on Belize to amend its laws in line with a universal lobby to establish protective mechanisms for LGBT persons.
At the same time, Belize this year introduced a new gender policy, which some members of the public see as a document designed to pave the way for special protective mechanisms for LGBT persons – who some contend will eventually seek equality of right to be married and to adopt children in Belize.
It is against this backdrop that several thousands of Belizeans took to the streets protesting the 2013 Gender Policy – some calling for a complete retraction, others for an amendment which puts to bed any doubt as to whether the policy is advancing the LGBT cause. Of note is that the policy has been accepted by the Barrow administration as the new gender policy for Belize.
The religious community was again up in arms over revisions to Belize’s Criminal Code which introduces language which they say equate anal and oral sexual intercourse with vaginal intercourse; contrary to the original statures which categorize such acts as unnatural crimes.
In the end, 2013 has seen both policy and legislative reform in Belize which signals a clear change in the way sexual intercourse is defined in modern Belize; however, the Barrow administration continues to say that these changes notwithstanding, sodomy remains illegal in Belize.
As 2013 draws to a close, there is no official word to indicate that Belize and Guatemala will advance talks towards a definitive end to the age-old territorial dispute between the parties.
Five years ago, in December 2008, Belize and Guatemala officials had penned their signatures in agreement that they would submit to their respective electorates the question of whether the matter should be settled at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Plans were in motion to hold simultaneous referenda in Belize and Guatemala on Sunday, October 6, 2013; however, Guatemala unilaterally pulled out of the process, claiming that Belize had amended its referendum laws in a manner that had created an uneven playing field, as Belize’s new law, which has threshold requirements, would not guarantee a ‘yes’ vote.
Provocative maps of Guatemala, which seemed to suggest an inclusion of Belize as a part of their territory, emerged. One such map emerged at an OAS forum in February. Then in April, plans were announced for a new Guatemalan passport which seemed to have Belize annexed with a dotted line.
During 2013, there continued to be controversy arising from Guatemalan incursions inside Belize – including encroachments for logging, gold panning and hunting. There were several arrests reported during the course of 2013 of persons who had illegally crossed over into Belize for such purposes.
The Belize Territorial Volunteers emerged in 2013 to put the spotlight on Belize’s borders with several expeditions to the border to emphasize the fact that Belize’s constitutionally-defined borders do exist.
Murder rate down
Official statistics from the Police Department indicate that after several years of burgeoning crime, the country was finally able to experience a reprieve in the incidences of murder for 2013. Whereas the official tally for 2013 is pending, indications are that the murder rate – particularly for Belize City – has dropped substantially.
Murders for January to October 2013 had dropped a substantial 26% from last year’s high of 119. At the end of November, Prime Minister Barrow announced that the decline had reached 32% since January.
The year had gotten off to a very bad start, with the brutal execution of four George Street gang leaders in January 2013.
The first quarter’s crime statistics were startling – with the murder rate doubling that of the previous year. Particularly, there was a spike of 10 murders in January, including the quadruple George Street murder.
Four gang leaders executed
Pandemonium ruled Belize City on Tuesday, January 8, after the early morning discovery of the slaughtered bodies of four members of the George Street gang in the upper flat of an apartment at the corner of Dean and Plues Streets. The murders also sparked an advisory from the US authorities.
An autopsy revealed that one of the deceased – Leonard Ghost Myers, 30 – was stabbed 38 times and his throat slit. Also massacred were Albert “Long John” Fuentes, 19, of George Street; Anthony Henry Perez, 28, of Plues Street; and Keino Quallo, 40, of Dean and Plues Streets.
Immediately after the discovery, persons close to the gang began blaming the police’s feared Gang Suppression Unit (GSU), who have had a long, antagonistic relationship with the gang. They pointed to the unusual manner in which the men were executed – contrary to the gun warfare used by gangs. For their part, the police denied the allegations.
Mother faces charges for death of children
Another tragedy in 2013 was the death of three children, for which their mother, Felicia Chen, is due to stand trial on April 7, 2014.
It was described as perhaps the most horrific and heartbreaking tragedy to have ever occurred in Belize. On Saturday, April 27, three children, Trinaya Felicia Teul, 1, Thomas Teul, 3, and Triana Teul, 4, were found dead in the sea at the Belizean Beach, a popular bathing and picnicking spot four miles out of Belize City, on the George Price Highway, after supposedly being drowned by their mother. Officials said that they died from “Immersion Syndrome.” The mother reportedly then tried to kill herself.
Police said that Trina Teul, the eldest child, 6, reportedly ran out of the sea and alerted someone on the highway about the incident, after which help was sought from the police.
Chen was initially said to have been suffering from chronic clinical depression and was admitted for psychiatric care – but she was later deemed fit to stand trial.
Noh Mul destruction
The mauling of Noh Mul, a 2,300-year old Maya monument, by a company owned by a ruling party operative was among the occurrences in 2013 which sparked public outrage – but which also drew sharp criticism even from within the ranks of government. More than that, the news of the destruction of the ancient Maya monument went viral overseas, with multiple reports being carried by Business Week, USA Today, Fox News, and other major foreign news outlets.
It had been reported that De’ Mar’s Contracting Company—owned by Orange Walk Central UDP caretaker Denny Grijalva, who has been a favorite in receiving Government contracts for road repairs in both the Orange Walk and Corozal Districts—destroyed Noh Mul for road fill, while doing repairs in Douglas Village of the Orange Walk North constituency.
The incident happened in May and it was not until June that charges were levied. De’ Mar’s company (which was represented in court by Denny and his wife Maria Grijalva) was charged along with Emil Cruz (the operator of the machinery seen in footage actually removing the stone) for removing stone from an ancient monument without a permit and for willfully damaging an ancient monument.
Meanwhile, Javier Nunez, the foreman for the project, was charged with willfully causing the removal of stone from an ancient monument and willfully causing the damage of an ancient monument. The charges were levied under the National Institute of Culture and History (NICB) Act, amended 2003.
There has not been an update provided to us on this case since the last report filed in June, more than 6 months ago.
Looking back at the Penner Passport Scandal
by Kareem Clarke
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Dec. 30, 2013
The reeling passport and visa scandals, which have dominated the news for the last four months, began to unfold on September 19, when the Office of the Prime Minister dropped a bombshell and announced that “with immediate effect, the Hon. Elvin Penner is no longer a Minister of State in the current (UDP) administration,” because, according to the communiqué, Penner, as Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration, “did not discharge his responsibilities with either due judgment and balance, or the scrupulous regard for appearances which the Prime Minister demands of all his Ministers.” The release said that Barrow had “required” Penner to resign after a late evening meeting which had taken place the day before.
Penner – the UDP Cayo Northeast area representative who happened to be 19 months into his second term as Minister of State – wound up at the center of an embarrassing fiasco in which he was accused of fraudulently facilitating the issuance of a Belizean passport and nationality to a South Korean businessman, later identified as Won Hong Kim, 52, a South Korean who was at the time imprisoned in a Taiwanese jail.
“Citizen Kim,” as he became infamously known, was allegedly awaiting extradition on charges of embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars from SK Shipping Company, a South Korean firm.
Won Hong Kim was detained in Taiwan in August, and in an effort to avoid extradition to South Korea to face trial for the slew of charges related to that particular felony, he managed to obtain a Belizean passport dated September 9, 2013.
Penner is accused of facilitating the passport application for Kim, although Kim had never entered Belize and so could not legally attain Belizean nationality.
Since the scandal broke, the Government has introduced changes to Belize’s Immigration, Nationality and Passport laws, with the introduction of more rigid penalties and the establishment of a Nationality Scrutinizing Committee to vet future nationality applications. Some officers were also moved out of the Immigration Department.
As 2013 closes, though, there has been no progress report on the investigations launched into the Penner Passport Scandal – among them the investigations launched by the Auditor General and the Financial Intelligence Unit. No criminal charges have been filed against him.
Furthermore, the ruling UDP continues to adamantly resist calls from the Opposition for a special senate inquiry into the passport/visa scandal; but the Opposition has pledged that the request will be resurrected in early 2014.
Another big 2013 Scandal: SIF – Social Investment Fund
by Kareem Clarke
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Dec. 30, 2013
The Penner Passport Scandal came on the heels of allegations of gross corruption, extortion and mismanagement at the Social Investment Fund (SIF), the statutory body which was tasked with the reconstruction of the Dangriga Town Market – still in shambles an incredible five months after it was to have been completed.
Four employees were sacked, while their boss, the former Executive Director of SIF, Daniel Cano, was given the option to resign following a decision by the SIF Board of Directors.
The dismissals came on the heels of an investigation launched by Contractor General Godwin Arzu, after a prior contractor, Kenard Smart, alleged an extortion scheme involving the then administration as well as members of staff.
Smart sent a distressing e-mail to the Contractor General in February 2013, claiming that “between 2009 and 2012, at least four SIF staff have extorted me or shaken me down…”
Smart went on to list and display a range of cheques of varying amounts which he asserted were paid to SIF staffers. In one instance, he claimed that he had paid $10,000 in a black plastic bag to an executive.
Some workers told the media that the monies were gifts from Smart.
#481364 - 01/01/14 10:46 AM
Re: Year in Review 2013
2013, Looking Back
And, as we end the year on that up note, we close this new year's eve newscast as we have for the better part of two decades: with a musical look back at some of the images that made news in the year past. It is by no means comprehensive, after all we aired about 85 hours of edited content in 240 newscasts - which if you played them back end to end, they would last about 15 days.
It's been our pleasure and honour to do that for you, and we hope to do more and better in 2014, but right now it's time to say goodbye to 2013, the good, the bad, the tragic, the inspiring, and the unforgettable.
That piece was edited over long hours by James Ayala.
And while that's only a 4 minute flashback - to get a fuller picture, tune in tomorrow morning at 7:00 am or tomorrow evening at 5:00 pm, to see our pick of the 113 stories that made news in 2013.
News junkies can get an endless fix on that one tomorrow, but for now, Goodnight, and have a safe and enjoyable new year's, join Monica Bodden back here on Thursday for our first newscast of 2014.
#482454 - 01/10/14 10:41 AM
Re: Year in Review 2013
Year in Review 2013 Part IIThe Guardian
Although the Government has had a formidable challenge in fighting crime, its persistence in implementing programs to keep the incidents of crime down paid off by the middle of 2013. In July, the Ministry of National Security released the crime statistics for the period of January to June 2013 and the numbers are reflective of a significant decrease in crime across the country. The statistics showed figures for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, theft and carnal knowledge. With the exception of theft and carnal knowledge, there has been a reduction in every other one of the crimes.
As compared to the first half of 2012, there has been a reduction in the numbers of murders from 75 to 59 up to the end of June this year. Similarly rapes have gone down from 18 to 12; robbery from 242 to 135, and burglaries from 547 to 468. Showing slight increases are thefts which went up from 469 to 473, and carnal knowledge cases from 22 to 41.
Minister of National Security, Hon. John Saldivar believes the figures are encouraging and prove that new policing strategies implemented in Belize City, which include the precinct system which has increased community-based initiatives is contributing to the decrease in crime statistics. He added that this coupled by increased employment generated by the Belize City Infrastructure programs and the Southside Poverty Alleviation Program has also assisted in the crime reduction.
Congratulations are in order for the Police Department, the Ministry and the Minister as they are proving that with a new outlook and guided vision, crime can be reduced in Belize.
Another social issue came to the fore in July: HIV and AIDS and how it’s affecting the Belizean population. Statistics released by the Ministry of Health show that men are being infected at a much more alarming rate than women. The report also reveals that more men are dying from the disease and recommends that “in an economic constrained setting and with limited resources, the priority must thus now be concentrated on men – in both testing and engaging them earlier in the HIV infection”. There were 26,595 HIV tests conducted in 2012 that were registered on the Belize Health Information System (BHIS). There were also 2,068 tests conducted at private health facilities that are not captured on BHIS. The 26,595 tests represent an increase of 11.2% compared to the number of tests in 2011. 17,533 females and 9,062 males were tested. There were 249 new HIV infections in 2012. That is approximately 10% higher than the 226 in 2011. 101 of the newly infected individuals are females and 148 are males. The report states, “There is an increasing number in males that are affected with a widening of the gap when compared to the female population.” There was a 1.51% infection rate among men tested compared to 0.54% among females. There was also a Behavioral Surveillance Survey conducted in 2012 which focused on HIV infections among two at risk groups; female sex workers and men who have sex with men. The survey reveals that the HIV prevalence rate among female sex workers was 0.91%, while among men who have sex with men the rate was 13.85%.
The increase in new HIV infections in 2012 stops a four-year trend in which the numbers shifted downwards. However, the country’s strategy to slow the spread remains effective as 249 new infections is far better than where we were from 2002 to 2008 where new infections ranged from 425 to 457.
Also in July, Belize continued to receive praises for its debt restructuring exercise and impressive economic performance in 2012. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says the completion of the exchange of the Super Bond for new United States denominated bonds has brought “substantial cash-flow relief” to Belize, according to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. The IMF says that the new bond has resulted in a cash flow relief of US$130 million over the next five years.
In 2011, Belize’s economy was severely injured by weather related damages in commodity exports but 2012 saw a strong rebound as the output growth for Belize was estimated at 5.3 per cent in 2012. The IMF is optimistic about the health of the economy because the “international reserve coverage is estimated at 3.4 months of imports up from three months in 2011, thanks in part to strong foreign direct investment inflows in the sugar sector”. Another reason for optimism is that the public debt is expected to decline to about 75 per cent of GDP at end-2013 which is due to the net face value haircut of three per cent from the recent debt restructure exercise. Despite some setbacks, the IMF applauded Government’s commitment to revamp the debt management framework and encourages the acceleration of its financial sector reform. The IMF recommends that “options to develop the domestic debt market should also be explored to mobilize domestic financing.”
The Government of Belize began preparing its defense of local legislation, which is being challenged by the LGBT community. On July 17, the Caribbean Court of Justice was empanelled to do case management following a legal action by a homosexual man and lawyer from Jamaica, Maurice Arnold Tomlinson, who is seeking Special Leave to invoke the original jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Tomlinson is seeking to invoke the original jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice which in essence is to interpret the Treaty of Chaguaramas. Under the Treaty of Chaguaramas, only member countries can invoke the original jurisdiction, hence, Tomlinson’s request for Special Leave. There must be a differentiation made between the original jurisdiction of the CCJ since a revision to the Treaty of Chaguaramas has given the court the authority to act as an appellate court replacing the Privy Council as the final appellate court for Belize, Barbados and Guyana.
If Tomlinson, who is also an LGBT activist, is successful in his leave application, he will be seeking that the court rules against Section 5 of the Immigration Act of Belize. That section reads:
“Subject to section 2(3) the following persons are prohibited immigrants-
(e) any prostitute or homosexual or person who may be living on or receiving or may have been living on or receiving the proceeds of prostitution or homosexual behavior.”
According to Tomlinson, the Immigration Act breaches his right to free movement established under Articles 45 and 46 of the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. In an affidavit, Tomlinson has admitted that he has visited Belize on at least two occasions most recently between July 17 and 21, 2012 and at the time, he claims he was not aware of the Immigration Act, even so however, he was not denied entry into Belize. His affidavit continues explaining that he was invited by the United Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) to conduct an advocacy and human rights training session in Belize City from January 14-16, 2013; however, he was legally barred from entering Belize by the Immigration Act since he is a gay man. The case would later be heard by the CCJ in November.
The House of Representatives in August approved an injection of $20 million into the state owned National Bank of Belize Limited. The Government of Belize established the National Bank in April of this year. It will operate under the motto “Of the People for the People” and will provide loans at concessionary rates to public officers and low income Belizean families. According to Prime Minister Barrow, the mission of the bank is principally to make residential mortgage and other consumer loans available to lower and middle income Belizeans and in particular public servants and teachers at cheaper rates than are being offered in the market. The bank was to start lending at an average of 6.5% on the reducing balance of loans. That was later revised downward to 5.5% when the bank opened in September.
The $20 million approved by the House is only startup capital as the authorized share capital of the institution is $100 million. The Bank will eventually be divided into 1 million shares at $100 per share. The immediate goal of the institution is to expand the home-owning community by focusing primarily on mortgage loans. The Bank will also accept deposits and eventually expand its loan portfolio to finance small businesses and other developmental causes. Government’s $20 million is a subscription to 200,000 shares in the company. The Prime Minister would later announce in December that Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) will invest $5 million plus additional investment from the Social Security Board (SSB).
Year in review 2013
Also in August, there was welcome news for sports enthusiasts: there will be a new basketball arena. Funds have finally been approved for the construction of a new national basketball facility for Belize. The House of Representatives granted Government permission to enter into a loan agreement with the Caribbean Development Bank for US$5.2 million. Prime Minister Barrow said the purpose of the loan is to improve citizen and community security in Belize City,” and the objective of the project is to reduce vulnerability of children and youth to crime and gang membership in the Collet, Lake I, Pickstock and Port Loyola Divisions of Belize City.
Promises to help finance and even to build the facility have not come to fruition and that prompted Prime Minister Barrow to reach out to the Caribbean Development Bank to finance the project. The basketball facility will be built as part of the project that will link Lake Independence to the Belama area. It also features a drop-in center for youths that will seek to “enhance literacy and adaptive life skills, support conflict mediation and promote inter-linkages and the sharing of best practices among participating agencies working in those communities.”
The “Caribbean Development Bank Youth and Community Transformation Project Loan” will be totally disbursed by October 31, 2017. Government will repay at 2.5% per annum on the outstanding portion of the loan by making 80 equal and consecutive quarterly installments, the first of which will be made ten years after the date of the loan agreement. As part of the loan agreement, Government is obligated to construct the road and bridge that will connect Chetumal Street to Lake Independence.
The project to construct the basketball facility will certainly bring more jobs and that’s in addition to the other major project that was announced in August. This was welcome news particularly in Southern Belize and the wider tourism industry. Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) proposal to invest no less than US$50 million on the Harvest Caye project has satisfied the Government’s criteria for foreign investment in Belize and the Cabinet Sub-Committee with responsibility for foreign investments publicly gave its nod of approval on August 14, in Belize City.
Hon. Sen. Godwin Hulse, Chairman of the Cabinet Sub-Committee, says that this is the first Government to establish a committee that will oversee all foreign investment in the country and in order for NCL’s or any other project to be approved they must satisfy five criteria.
To do business in Belize the project must be socially and economically acceptable and legally doable. Hulse explains that sociably acceptable mean it would not hinder Belizeans’ way of life. In terms of it being economically acceptable, the project must benefit Belizeans in terms of jobs and other developmental opportunities. NCL must also provide training opportunities to Belizeans for all available jobs.
Another criterion for investment in Belize demand that those jobs be meaningful employment that pays well. Colin Murphy, Vice President of NCL with responsibility for destination development, says that the project will create over 1,000 direct and indirect jobs. That does not include the couple hundred temporary construction jobs. Murphy says there are even more jobs available apart from the Harvest Caye project as NCL is looking to hire an additional 8,000 crew members over the next three years. As a sign of good intention, Murphy promises to implement a crew recruitment program to start hiring Belizeans immediately to work on NCL ships. Upon completion of the Harvest Caye project, individuals hired as part of the crew will have the choice of working on the island or staying on the ships. There is also a five year phase out plan that will see jobs that are initially held by foreigners assumed by Belizeans.
The third criterion for investment is the project must create an increase in revenue for the Government of Belize and the fourth is that it must bring foreign exchange. As part of the MOU, NCL must generate a minimum of 25% of manifested passengers on tours. Though NCL will be given the same tax exemptions that are available to both local and foreign investors in the tourism industry, they are still required to pay General Sales Tax and any other taxes that are paid by other operators. Hulse says it is projected that Government will receive between $43 and $45 million in foreign exchange in the first year of the Harvest Caye operation.
The fifth criterion for investment is that the project must preserve and possibly enhance the environment. There are individuals that have raised concerns over environmental impact. Murphy says that there should be no concern about that because NCL is committed to protecting the environment. The NCL Southern cruise will offer passengers the choice to visit as much as 30 communities and 60 attractions. There will be one ship per day and during the high season NCL will make calls four to five days per week. Construction is expected to be completed in two years.
August ended with one very important public asset back into the hands of the people: the Commerce Bight Port in Southern Belize. The Minister of Works revoked a lease granted to the Port of Belize Limited to operate and manage the Commerce Bight Port. It added that arrangements were being made to take possession and control of the Port. Three main factors were stated as being reasons for the repossession of the port. The first was that the Port of Belize Limited had failed to submit a development plan to carry out any development work on the facilities. Secondly, the company failed to operate and manage as well as to do maintenance work on the facility including the dredging of the channel and the dock basin. Thirdly PBL had failed to pay lease rental to the Government. The takeover has been long in the making as the government had made attempts to revoke the lease from as early as March 19, 2008, when notice was served that the lease would have been revoked. The Ports of Belize immediately took action and applied for and was given an injunction restraining the then Minister, Hon. Melvin Hulse from executing. That injunction was maintained until July 20, 2012 when it was discharged by the Supreme Court. With the government’s take over it is expected that in a short while, commercial activity will return to the port and employment and business will once again be re-established at this very important port of trade.
September began with the opening of Belize’s first National Bank, which will provide lending to public officers, teachers, and members of the military lower rates than the commercial banks. The National Bank of Belize Limited is now accepting applications for mortgage loans from public officers and middle income Belizeans. The Prime Minister of Belize, Hon. Dean Barrow, established the bank in April of this year and commissioned the Board of Directors to begin operations as soon as possible. The Board is chaired by Senator Joy Grant and Deputy Financial Secretary Marion Palacio is the Vice Chair. President of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, Dylan Reneau, John Mencias and Hector Sabido are the other members of the Board. Prime Minister Barrow announced on August 7 that the House of Representatives approved an injection of $20 Million to be used as startup capital for the bank. Prime Minister Barrow said the finances will be derived from the Petro-Caribe Initiative. The Petro-Caribe Initiative allows Government to purchase fuel from Venezuela at concessionary rates and only a portion of the actual value of the fuel is paid up front. The difference is a deferred payment which is converted into a loan of 1% interest. The $20 million approved by the House is only startup capital as the authorized share capital of the institution is $100 million. Senator Grant said at the opening that 50% of the original equity financing is for public servants and teachers and the remainder is for the general public.
In perhaps an answer to Norwegian Cruise Lines’ plan for southern Belize, the Feinstein Group of Companies (FCG) announced on a US$150 million project off the coast of Belize City that involves the development of Stake Bank Island and North Drowned Caye into first class destinations for foreign and domestic tourists.
Michael Feinstein, Chairman of the Feinstein Group of Companies, hosted a press conference on September 4th, to give an overview of the project. State Bank Island is located four nautical miles south east of Belize City. Feinstein will invest US$67.5 million to develop the island into an entertainment centre with a port for the berthing of cruise ships. The port will be capable of hosting four voyager class cruise ships at any given time. Stake Bank will also provide a marina for transiting yachts and facilities for shops restaurants and bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues. There will also be an “independent entertainment and shopping area for cruise crew members” as well as a Mayan themed water park. The need for a berthing facility near Belize City cannot be overstated as the cruise lines have expressed dissatisfaction with the tendering arrangement on multiple occasions. The majority of passengers choose not to leave the massive ships with luxury service to board the boats that look like dories from the deck. According to FCG, those that do board tenders have complained because it is “unsafe and accidents have occurred”. Only a little over 40% of passengers that get off the ships actually organize tours because of the poor experience while boarding the tenders and aggressive greeting by tour operators near the Fort Street Tourism Village.
The second feature of the project has been dubbed Ocean View Grand. It is an US$89 million investment in the development of North Drowned Caye into a multi-use luxury village resort. North Drowned Caye is located two nautical miles from Belize City. The project includes the construction of a luxury marina condo hotel and conference facility, high-end villas and a duty free shopping area. Feinstein says it will be a “full service activity island” that will be opened to all Belizeans. Feinstein says the intent of the duty free area opened to the public is in order to attract those heading to Chetumal. He admits that some local merchants are concerned about the idea of a duty free zone opened to the public but says, from his discussions with most of them, they have adopted the position that the people are going to spend millions in Chetumal anyway so hopefully those millions will now be spent here. Phase I of the project has already begun which is the development of a “Marina Village” capable of handling vessels from small crafts to mega-yachts. It also includes a staging area for catamaran service between the island and the mainland.
It was not highlighted in their press conference nor in their pamphlets but the most ambitious feature of the project is a causeway between North Drowned Caye and Belize City. Perhaps that is because it is also the most criticized for the potential harm it could cause to the environment. Feinstein says he has heard the criticisms and declared that “no manatees will be harmed during this project”. He said it would actually be beneficial to marine life as the structure will be used as habitat and feeding base for organisms in the area.
FCG is still awaiting approval from multiple Government regulatory bodies. It is anticipated that over 1,200 jobs will be provided during the construction phase of the project and over 3,000 direct jobs will be available as the facilities become operational. The project is expected to take up to three years for completion.
September, however, was not without its share of controversy. One of them was at the Social Investment Fund (SIF) and it meant several key people at the body were without jobs. Four senior officers from the Social Investment Fund were terminated on September 17th. The decision was taken after allegations were made by Kennard Smart in which he provided copies of cancelled checks written out to 4 of the SIF officials. Smart contends that it is because of ‘shakedowns’ that he was unable to complete the Dangriga Market project which he was contracted to do in May of 2012 with a scheduled completion date of July 2013. He provided checks to prove that he had been giving four officers money by way of check and further alleged that the Managing Director received at least one payment of 11 thousand dollars in cash which was given to him in two transactions, one which amounted to $1,000 and the other of $10,000 which he allegedly gave Cano in a black bag.
Those who were canned include, Enrique Romero, Technical Officer in charge of the northern region; Leonel Jimenez, the Engineer in charge of the Dangriga Market; Fausto Pineda who was in charge of water and sanitation and Mike Hernandez, Public Relations manager at SIF. The termination of the employees was also followed by the resignation of SIF’s Managing Director, Daniel Cano. A temporary management structure has been put in place at SIF until a new Executive Director is hired. As for the Dangriga market there are two suppliers/financiers of Smart who have come forward claiming money for financing and the supply of materials, which they gave to Smart for him to proceed with work at the market. Those persons are Emy Ramirez and Donovan Bailey. It’s a dicey situation for the pair since they claim to have fronted as much as 500 thousand dollars and were in no way involved in securing the original contract which had been awarded to Smart’s K&G construction company which has since lost the contract for failure to meet deadlines of the project.
As for the fired employees, Mike Hernandez spoke to the Guardian and explained that he indeed received a single check for $500 from K&G on December 23, 2009. Hernandez says the check was a gift from Smart and he took it since it was the Christmas Season, a time of gift giving and receiving. He pointed out that the check was in 2009, long before Smart was awarded the Dangriga Market Project and there is no way it could have been a cause for him to not complete the work which was awarded to him in May 2012.
The Battlefield Park has seen a magnificent rebirth. On September 18th Mayor Darrell Bradley officially declared the park open once again. After 5 months of arduous work put in by International Environs (IE), the park was opened to the public. The park now features a flat square with benches, a fountain, a flag pole, green spaces and the bust of the great labor movement leader, Antonio Soberanis. In opening the park Bradley described the park as the heart and soul of Belize City since it sits smack in the center of the commercial area. He noted that the park has a great historic origin having been the gathering ground for residents of Belize from as early as 1638. It was “ground stand for people to congregated and advocate for their rights,” and as such the redesign of the park was to pay respect to its history.
Work commenced on the park in April and concluded on target in September and Mayor Bradley said he was pleased with the outcome. He noted that over the years the park had become a “symbol of decay” becoming the resting place for people who had nowhere to go. With the reconstruction it signaled the reclaiming back of the park and more so the reclaiming of the larger Belize City.
As if the announcements of good news weren’t enough, Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow made another very important announcement, which would translate to savings in Belizeans’ pockets. In his Independence Day address to the nation, Prime Minister Barrow announced that the Government of Belize will write off another $6.22 million in loans from the Development Finance Corporation as “an Independence Day gift”. Government will forgive the debts of 361 Belizeans. According to Prime Minister Barrow, most of the loans are from the mortgage program with a few from the education and productive sectors. He says most of the loans have already been foreclosed upon and the DFC has seized and sold the borrowers’ collateral. However, the sale of the collateral was not sufficient to cover the debt; therefore, the borrowers are still on the hook for the balance and are being “hounded by lawyers and bill collectors”. Individuals benefiting from this new debt relief initiative should be receiving notification letters soon. Many have expressed concern about the fate of the DFC after the birth of the National Bank. Prime Minister Barrow assured the public that the institution is still an extremely important vehicle in Government’s development agenda. The DFC has regained operational profitability and 83% of its lending program is directed towards the productive sector. Prime Minister Barrow announced on Independence Day that not only will the institution not be downsized but it will actually expand its lending portfolio by $80 million over the next few years. That is guaranteed by Cabinet. The DFC remains committed to funding development projects of individuals who cannot meet the terms or interest rates of commercial banks.
Another challenge Government is left to tackle: the problems in Belize’s immigration system. Minister of Immigration, Hon. Godwin Hulse asked the police to go in to the Immigration Department to conduct an investigation to determine whether or not files have been removed or stolen. Work at that section of the department was put on hold.
The investigation was triggered after Arthur Saldivar came up with a story that he intercepted files from that department that were to be destroyed. The files appear, to say the least, suspect, with pictures looking like portraits painted by amateur artists and what Saldivar purports to be genuine documents not having the necessary security features that they would normally carry.
Saldivar said he has 150 of these documents but so far has only released 2 of them and promised to release the others thereafter. He has not done so and has come up with a fantastic story that there was a search warrant and then an arrest warrant out for him. Of course neither was true and it turned out to be just a fiction of his wild imagination. It would appear that the serial calling of the radio stations is not enough for Saldivar that he is now resorting to making up fibs in order for television media to now pick him up.
But Prime Minister Dean Barrow was consistent in his anti-corruption stance. The message was clear on October 15th, when he announced that it was decided by Cabinet that Hon. Elvin Penner would be asked to resign as a member of the Party and as Area Representative for Cayo North East. The decision was made after other instances of what to us are irregularities surfaced. He added that while the evidence presented to Cabinet was enough for it to act, in this manner, there may not be sufficient for a court of law to act on. He pointed out that there was a difference between “factual guilt and legal guilt.” He added that there was enough “material presented to cabinet to prove he was involved in irregularities.” Hon. Godwin Hulse and other personnel from the Ministry of Immigration found more evidence to suggest that Penner may have been involved in other irregularities at the ministry and because of that discovery the Cabinet decided that they could no longer continue to support him. “In our view he cannot any longer continue to represent the people of the Cayo North East constituency.” That decision extended also to him being a representative of the United Democratic Party.
The decision said the Prime Minister, was one that was told to Penner even before the public announcement so that he was not taken by surprise by it. The decision, stated the PM, is irreversible, but still if Penner chooses to not resign there is nothing that can be done to force him to vacate his seat or to leave the UDP. “If Hon. Penner heeds our request that he resign from the house (and) that he resign from the United Democratic Party, then the procedures are set in motion for him to vacate the seat and for a bi-election to take place. If he refuses to resign from the UDP or the House there is not a thing that any of us can do to oust him from that seat,” stated the PM. There was however hope that he will do the right thing by his party and heed the call to resign, said Prime Minister Barrow. Having now made the decision to ask Penner to leave, there is the risk that the seat will be turned over to the PUP, but it is one that the Prime Minister stated he is ready to accept.
Also in October, SATIIM and Government were back in court over oil drilling in southern Belize. Who owns the Sarstoon-Temash National Park? That is the question Justice Michele Arana is now trying to answer after counsels for SATIIM and surrounding Maya communities, U.S. Capital Energy and the Government of Belize concluded their presentations on October 23. It is a complex case, since arguments are based on a judgment currently under appeal, but the decision by Justice Arana will be based simply on the question of ownership. Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay represents SATIIM and the four Maya communities that surround the Sarstoon-Temash National Park. Courtenay presented his submissions on October 22. His case is based on a June 2010 ruling by Chief Justice Abdullah Conteh. In 2007, Conteh ruled that the villagers of Santa Cruz and Conejo were entitled to customary land tenure rights of their ancestral land. Then in a 2010 case he referred to as a sequel, Conteh ruled that all 33 Maya villages in the Toledo District have customary land tenure rights and government is obligated to protect those rights and ensure that such ownership is formally registered. The Government of Belize took the judgment to the Court of Appeals and in July of 2013 the Court upheld Conteh’s judgment that the Mayas have customary land tenure rights but rejected the order that Government must grant titles and do all in its power to enforce those rights. Courtenay argues that it was unlawful for Government to grant an oil concession to U.S. Capital Energy for exploration in the Sarstoon Temash National Park since it is Maya ancestral land. Senior Counsel Denys Barrow, representing the Government of Belize, responded to Courtenay’s submissions on October 23rd. He spoke to the Guardian immediately after the case wrapped up. Barrow says, “The Mayas have not established that the lands they have any rights over include the lands where oil drilling activities have been authorized.” He continues, “They may have communal land rights, according to the Court of Appeals judgment-which is being appealed, but the judgment fails to state where those rights exist and where they are located.” He also says that nobody from the Maya communities have claimed that the place where the exploration activities are taking place is a sight where any of them used to hunt, fish farm or used to build anything. All parties now await the ruling of Justice Arana.
Amendments of existing immigration legislation were introduced in the House of Representatives on Friday, November 1. Three amendments to the laws have been tabled in the National Assembly in order to limit the potential for corruption in the passport and nationality departments. The Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2013 amends the Immigration Act in relation to permanent residency and the issuance of visas. The Belizean Nationality (Amendment) Bill, 2013 amends the Belizean Nationality Act in relation to registration of citizenship. The Passport (Amendment) Bill, 2013 amends the Passport Act in respect to offences and penalties in case of breach of protocol. The Immigration (Amendment) Bill includes the addition of a new section in the Immigration Department with responsibility for the issuance of permanent residency permits and a visa vetting committee. The role of the vetting committee is to review and make recommendations on every visa application from every country. The Director of Immigration or any consular office cannot issue a visa without the approval of the vetting committee. The visa vetting committee will consist of the C.E.O. in the ministry of Immigration, the CEO in the Ministry of Human Development, the CEO in the Ministry of National Security and the Director of Immigration and Nationality Services. Previously, the approval of visa applications and the directive to issue visas rested exclusively with the Director of Immigration and Nationality. As explained by Prime Minister Barrow in the House of Assembly, the Belizean Nationality (Amendment) Bill mandates that “all applicants for nationality must be in possession of a permanent residency permit declaring their status as a permanent resident for five years of continuous residency immediately prior to applying to be registered as a citizen of Belize”. The amendments also provide for increased penalties in cases where the provisions of the act are violated. Those in violation of the Nationality Act, including Ministers and public officers, will be fined fifty thousand dollars and serve a mandatory jail term of five to fifteen years. The bill also includes the establishment of a nationality scrutinizing committee. The committee is to consist of one representative of the Attorney General’s Ministry, the Chief Executive Officers in the Ministries of Immigration, Human Development and National Security, one member appointed by the Minister of Immigration after consultation with the Council of Churches and Association of Evangelical Churches, one member appointed by the Minister after consultation with the Belize Chamber of Commerce and one member appointed by the Minister after consultation with the National Trade Union Congress of Belize. The Director of Immigration will also serve as an ex-officio member. The Passport (Amendment) Bill increases the penalties individuals will face if convicted of unlawfully facilitating the procurement of passports. The existing penalty for unlawful facilitating or procuring passports is $500 and up to one year imprisonment. Senator Hulse says that amounts to a slap on the wrists for individuals making huge money on this scam. The new fine for the unlawful facilitation and procurement of passports is now $50,000. Hulse says they may easily be able to afford to pay the fine but a now mandatory jail term of five to fifteen years should act as a reasonable deterrent. This increase in penalties for passport fraud is in addition to new measures that were already put in place by Minister Hulse to limit the potential for passport fraud.
Staying with the passport issue, there were scurrilous and unsubstantiated allegations that Minister of State, Hon. Edmund Castro was involved in such illicit activity. The allegations were made by Alvarine Burgess, who was the so-called whistleblower on the PUP-aligned Channel 5. It would appear that Channel 5 has taken on the position that they will try to destabilize the government by any means necessary. On Monday night they continued to push the envelope when they put Alvarine Burgess on the Dickie Bradley show, this time for an hour long session of very much the same thing that she has been saying. The only difference in this case was that she agreed to show her face.
Burgess by her own admission has stated that she is some sort of agent for passports and visas, but by some grace she has decided to come clean. By our information she has been at it for years but it seems that she has now gotten enough and is coming clean for the sake of the country. By her accounts, she visited Hon. Edmund Castro, who according to her original story signed 200 recommendations for her. Then she made her appearance on Dickie Bradley’s talk show where her numbers changed, she claimed she visited Hon. Castro at least 25 times, each time getting 6 or 7 recommendations. It would seem that she keeps on changing her numbers, and by Hon. Castro’s reckoning it is almost impossible for her to have visited him that many times at his Belmopan office since he is not in office that often in the first place.
The number of recommendations she claims to have been issued is one thing, now she is adding a new dynamic to her fantasy. She claims that the U.S. embassy called her in for her to give them information on her operations. When she did arrive, Alvarine says she was grilled for 3 hours and even worse a conversation she claims she had with Hon. Castro was played back for her. After her ‘ordeal’, she left the embassy crying. Any reasonable person can surmise that it is likely that she went to the U.S. embassy to apply for a visa and knowing her history, she was questioned by the embassy personnel. It is likely that she left crying because her application was denied. Now, anybody who knows Alvarine can tell you that she has her untidy moments. This time around however, there are those who believe she has gone too far. What is strange about the entire saga is the fact that she has only made appearances on Channel 5. She has not made any attempt to seek any other media house that is independent and credible. More than that, Alvarine has not provided a shred of evidence to prove what she is saying is true. All she has is allegations and claims that she has witnesses who she claims will say saw her go in to speak to Hon. Castro. As for Channel 5, it has already been served with a note from Hon. Castro’s attorney giving them until November 12 to apologize, retract and offer compensation. They have not responded and full legal proceedings are now underway.
A partnership between Coca Cola and FIFA saw the FIFA World Cup Trophy arrive in Belize on Thursday, November 7. The fourteen and a half inches tall, thirteen and a half pound eighteen-karat gold symbol of triumph had as large a security team as any visitor in the country’s history (including Queen Elizabeth II), and it was amidst heavy guard that a press conference was held in the VIP Arrival Lounge of the airport. From the airport the trophy was escorted to the Radisson Fort George Hotel where it was displayed in the Caracol Room. A couple hundred Belizeans lined up to take individual photographs with the gem. Before 2006, one would only be able to dream of doing such a thing. Pekka Odriozola, Public Relations Representative of FIFA explained that prior to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, FIFA sat down with long time sponsor, Coca-Cola, to figure out ways to bring the FIFA World Cup closer to fans in an effort to share the passion and spirit of the tournament directly with them. He said football is the most popular sport in the world so they came up with this idea to bring the World Cup Trophy to the fans because most cannot afford to travel half way around the world to experience the World Cup Tournament. The first tour was held in 2006 when the trophy went on a 28-country tour in a three- month stretch before the FIFA World Cup in Germany. The tour was a huge success as thousands of people got to see the trophy and the tournament was one of the most anticipated in history. The list of countries to be visited by the prestigious trophy before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa increased to 84. Since it was the first time the tournament was held on African soil, organizers wanted to visit as many countries on the continent as possible and as a result stops were made in 50 African nations. The tour included stops in 130 cities worldwide and lasted from September of 2009 to May of 2010. This time, the trophy began a 267 day tour in Brazil on September 12th which will include visits to 88 countries, 50 that have never hosted it before. In Belize, Governor General Sir Colville Young was the only person allowed to touch the trophy because only Heads of State and the Captain of the World Cup Champions are allowed to touch.
From Belize the trophy was taken to the Middle East where it was hosted by Israel and Palestine before going to other countries in the region. The tour ends on April 21, 2014 in the host country, Brazil.
The last month of the year features an impasse in the sugar industry where cane farmers have lobbied for payment for bagasse, which is deemed a byproduct of sugar cane and used to generate energy. The Belize Sugar Industries Limited (BSIL) gave its position on the current impasse between the cane suppliers and the sugar mill. Chairman, Arsenio Burgos made it clear that when cane farmers sell their cane to the mill it becomes the property of BSIL- “the sugar, water, fiber mud and all... BSI spent $20 million over the last 30 years for such storage and disposal, and continues to bear the cost,” stated Burgos. He continued explaining that BSI has never asked the farmers to contribute to share the cost.
Echoing the sentiment was ASR V.P. Ricardo Lima. He stated that bagasse is a residue and a disposal problem for the company which BSI is spending money to dispose of. He also stated that the company is one that is not accustomed to “airing our differences in the media. But even as he called on the BSCFA to return to the negotiating table it was made clear that the cane farmers had not invested in the 130 million dollar BELCOGEN factory and as such did not have a stake in it. However Lima noted that “going back to the table and negotiations is the way to go. We can reach an agreement on the commercial agreement, and continue to disagree on the bagasse and agree to disagree on the bagasse.” The place to end that dispute stated Lima was the courts. But more than ending the disagreement in court, Lima also offered to assist cane farmers with improving of the sugar roads as well as drainage stating, “we would like to establish ASAP a program to assist them in fixing those roads and drainage and we want to be a part of that.”
Meanwhile however the sugar crop is delayed even after BSIL had announced that its mill was ready to receive sugarcane. The Prime Minister, along with the Deputy Prime Minister and other technocrats in the agriculture industry, decided to mediate negotiations on both sides, but to date, the impasse remains unresolved.
What has been a challenge to the sugar industry and the country over is the weather. The past three months of consistent rain has put a battering on the infrastructure of the entire country and the Government of Belize is responding to the massive damages that has beset the roads. Prime Minister Dean Barrow explained that the roadway problems will be addressed firstly in a remedial manner and thereafter in a comprehensive national multi-million dollar approach. P.M. Barrow announced that immediately 2.269 Million dollars will be made available to the ministry of works which will see remedial road works in all municipalities with the first tranche of over 96 thousand dollars already being made available. Corozal will receive $494,216.25 dollars; Orange Walk $184,356; Belize District over $442,295; the Cayo district will receive 1.1 Million dollars; Stann Creek will get $87,795 and the Toledo district will receive $59,160. While that is the planned spending to offer some respite for road users, a greater more holistic and comprehensive look at the infrastructure across the country will see Central Government investing $76.72 Million dollars on the major highways as well as the Old Northern Highway and village roads. These monies are currently available for infrastructure development through the Petro-Caribe Initiative. According to the Prime Minister, the investment will be made as follows: the Phillip Goldson Highway will see $16.73M in upgrades; the George Price Highway will get $5.3M; the Old Northern Highway will receive 1.7M. Investments will also be done on village roads as follows: $6.34M in Cayo; $10.95M in the Belize District; $8.63 in the Stann Creek district; $15.61 in the Toledo district; $2.92 in Orange Walk; and $10.25 in the Corozal district. The Prime Minister described the plan as one that was “muscular, a plan on steroids.” As for the City, where Mayor Darrell Bradley has been performing in a stellar fashion, the PM explained that central government will pick up the tab for paving the Partridge Street Area, the roundabout at the flag monument, the intersection at Mahogany Street, Princess Margaret Drive from the intersection with West Landivar up to the Marion Jones Stadium, the completion of both Baymen Avenue and Newtown Barracks. Additionally central government will fund a $2.5M drainage program that will impact 21 streets across the city. Orange Walk will also see the highway repaired in excess of $2M along with the San Antonio road being fixed to the tune of over $500,000. Work will also be carried out in Corozal, San Ignacio and Santa Elena, Benque, and Belmopan. Dangriga and Punta Gorda will also be done but the work will be done by the Ministry of Works. In infrastructure, the Prime Minister explained that government is prepared to spend on improving sugar roads providing that there is a crop. He added that he needs to be assured that there will be a crop or those monies would be allocated to other areas of greater priority.
The Police Department has also drawn some negative publicity when it was accused of commissioning the killing of a man, who reportedly assaulted a Canadian couple in southern Belize. Twenty seven year-old Tyson Rodriguez, who was the main suspect in the home invasion of a Canadian couple in Placencia, died while in the custody of Placencia Police. The direct consequence of his sudden demise has triggered the Commissioner of Police to order an investigation into the circumstances of his demise.
A 59 year-old Canadian man and his 61 year-old wife were at their home in the Plantation area, when 3 dark-skinned men ambushed, savagely beat them into submission and forced them to allow the assailants entrance into their house. The wife suffered a broken jaw and multiple facial injuries almost disfiguring her. The husband’s head was dunked under water several times; he almost drowned. The men then burglarized the house and escaped with the couple’s white GMC SUV speeding down toward the Southern Highway.
Placencia police, as immediately as they responded the call for help, alerted all police formations of the home invasion, and the stolen vehicle, and surveillance and response teams were deployed. 13 and a half hours after the burglary, Corozal Police and Customs Patrol spotted the vehicle, which had its license plates removed, on the Chan Chen Road, over 200 miles away from where it was stolen. When they finally managed to get close to the vehicle and recover it, the two men who were inside had already dumped it, and they fled on foot. The investigating teams combed the surrounding area and saw one of the men who they believe was in the vehicle. That man was waiting at the Xaibe Bus stop, and as soon as he saw the officers coming he tried to run away, but with the help of Xaibe villagers, police caught him. He was later identified as Tyson Rodriguez, the Dangriga resident who had a run-in with San Pedro Police last year after one of the officers shot him, reportedly in self-defense.
Police transported the stolen vehicle and Tyson back to Placencia where he was to be questioned, and charged when the officers got enough evidence. On Friday night, 26 hours after the robbery took place, police say that he started to cooperate with the investigation while he was being interviewed by CIB personnel. He reportedly agreed to take them to where some of the stolen items were located, and he was placed in the pan of the police mobile.
All this time, police had been performing exceptionally while dealing with the crime and subsequent 200-mile chase, but at this point, the details provided do not inspire total confidence in the decisions taken by the officers. They reported to their commanding officer, Inspector Mark Flowers, that while he was being transported to the location where the loot was being hidden, Rodriguez, who had his hands cuffed at his back, jumped out of the moving vehicle in the vicinity of the Chabil Mar area and ran into the bushes in an attempt to escape.
These officers say that a few minutes later, they didn’t want to chase after him the way he went, so they went around a different area to cut him off on the beach, only to find him floating in the water, apparently drowned. They say that they didn’t see him after he escaped, and the next time they caught sight of him, he was dead. Inspector Flowers has told the media that this explanation of the events does not satisfy him as an OC because the proper response should have been that they immediately go after him to catch him, not to try to cut him off, losing sight of him for a few minutes. Rodriguez’s family totally rejects the police version of events when it comes to his death. They believe that the officers who had him in their custody killed him and are now trying to cover it up. The family says that the post-mortem shows clearly that Rodriguez was beaten and his head was held in the sand until he inhaled sand and died of suffocation. They have hired attorney Audrey Matura-Shepherd and they intend to pursue legal action against the police department for Rodriguez’s death. In the meantime, Commissioner Allen Whylie has ordered a criminal and an internal investigation into the role of the police officers who had Rodriguez in their custody.
The year has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but the glimmers of hope in 2013 shall sustain us and keep us grounded. Let’s usher in the brand new year with promise, and with the knowledge that as a nation we can make Belize a wonderful place.
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